Despite not getting a ton from Walker Buehler so far in 2022, there was still hope for him to come back sometime before October and be a productive member of the pitching staff.
Buehler has a quite stellar postseason track record. In 79 2/3 innings, he has a 2.94 ERA and a 21.5 K-BB%. He had his coming out party in the 2018 World Series against the Red Sox (7 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 7 K) and was vital in the Dodgers’ World Series run in 2020. This is all despite a couple clinkers in last year’s playoffs against the eventual World Series champion Braves. So, when the Dodgers announced he was going to be out for the remainder of the ’22 season and would undergo elbow surgery, it was a bit of a gut punch.
Buehler had bone chips removed from his elbow earlier this season and will have another procedure. It isn’t known whether it’s another Tommy John procedure, as the Dodgers didn’t announce anything more specific than “elbow surgery.” Buehler, famously, had TJ after the Dodgers drafted him in 2015. Either way, with Buehler out the Dodgers are going to need guys to step up in the playoffs as they have during the regular season.
The easy one to target is Julio Urias, who is having a strong campaign. He has a 2.40 ERA, 3.42 FIP and a 19.2 K-BB%. He isn’t pitching as well as he did last season, but the differences aren’t drastic. As of now, he’s the Dodgers’ No. 1 starter come the postseason. We know he has the composure for the job, as he was integral in the Dodgers’ championship — even if it wasn’t in a starting pitcher capacity.
Dustin May — set to return Sunday against the Marlins — suddenly becomes a more important cog in the Dodgers’ championship aspirations. He’s coming back from TJ surgery himself and is a bit of a different pitcher than the last time he appeared in the postseason in 2020. He started missing more bats last season thanks to the increased effectiveness of his curveball and cutter. And the reports from his rehab have been so encouraging that it’s hard not to dream on him being the Dodgers’ ace in October. However, Buehler’s injury adds another level of pressure to May coming back. He threw just 21 minor-league innings in his rehab, and hoping for him to get 15-21 outs consistently in the postseason is incredibly optimistic. While he’ll have the better part of six weeks to build stamina in time for the playoffs, you have to believe the Dodgers will be more cautious with him rather than just turning him loose.
Tyler Anderson and Tony Gonsolin have been fantastic this season. Both were National League All-Stars and, while they might be as good as they were earlier in the season, they’ve still been plenty good for the best team in baseball. Counting on them come October is a risky proposition because they lack the track record of performing and they don’t miss as many bats as guys like Urias, Buehler, and a certain future Hall-of-Famer I’ll mention next. Pitching strikeouts are increasingly important in this age of baseball. Anderson and Gonsolin have 19.9 and 23.5 K%, respectively. The MLB average for starting pitchers is 23.1%, so that’s something to watch if Anderson and Gonsolin draw significant postseason starts. I’m more confident in Anderson right now despite the lower K% because he does a better job limiting exit velocity at 85.3 MPH, which is 2nd-best in baseball behind the Mets’ Chris Bassitt (85.2 MPH). Gonsolin is at 88.4 MPH, which is 0.4 MPH better than league-average.
And then we have Clayton Kershaw. The Cooperstown-bound superstar who, before going down with a back injury earlier this month, was having another strong campaign. Gone are the days of the 93-96 MPH fastball and, despite not mastering the changeup, he still finds ways to get the job done. I’m not going to go into his somewhat checkered postseason résumé (if not overblown), but any iteration of this Dodger team is going to need him to start in October.
All that doesn’t include the bullpen, which is always a focal point of the fan base come the playoffs. And yet, there’s another aspect of the team that needs to show up in the fall — the offense.
The Dodgers have, infamously, had guys not show up in October after being good in the regular season. In the past, it has been guys like Yasmani Grandal, Corey Seager (before his insane 2020 postseason) and AJ Pollock. Of the current Dodgers, the guy I’m looking at is Trea Turner.
Turner hit just .216/.245/.255 with an ugly 1:12 BB:K ratio in 53 postseason plate appearances last year. This was after he hit .338/.385/.565 in 226 plate appearances following being acquired by the Dodgers from Washington. And before you cry out “small sample size,” consider his postseason batting line with the Nationals wasn’t much better — .233/.286/.302 with a 9:33 BB:K ratio. He has just one postseason home run and five doubles. Hitting in the No. 2 or 3 spot in the lineup, Turner is going to have to show up and be the catalyst (along with Mookie Betts) the offense needs. Oh, and he’s angling for a mega contract after the season. A strong showing in October could convince a team on the fence about signing him (the Dodgers, maybe?) the nudge it needs to pull the trigger.
A couple others who need to show up are Will Smith and Cody Bellinger. Look, I know they’ve had big hits in their postseason careers, but outside of Smith’s 3-run homer in Game 5 of the 2020 NLCS, he has been pretty abysmal in October — .206/.301/.373. He’s too good to be that bad in the playoffs. Bellinger has enjoyed some heroics — 2018 NLCS, 2020 NLCS, 2020 World Series — but he’s also had some notable disappointments — 2017 World Series, 2018 NLDS, 2018 World Series, 2019 NLDS. In fact, he was not very good in the ’18 LCS (.591 OPS) or ’20 Series (.481 OPS — yes, his shoulder was destroyed), as his biggest postseason hits have not usually been accompanied by series-long success. What’s funny is he probably had his best postseason showing last year — .353/.436/.471 — and he did so by hitting just one home run. He has a penchant for coming through in the clutch, but he isn’t David Ortiz reincarnate as he needs consistency.
With Buehler out, the Dodgers are going to need a variety of players to step up. They, barring a 2017 September-like run, should have home-field advantage in the postseason, and they’ll need to take advantage of that, even if it isn’t as big of an advantage as it might seem on the surface. But none of that will matter unless some of the arms and, more importantly, some of the bats don’t show up.